AMES— If you’re lucky enough to enter the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Student Center on a weekday evening, you might encounter the rich aroma of freshly ground coffee.
Open the kitchen door, and you’ll find a small group of adults and students hustling around the room.
Dipping into large bins of deep brown coffee beans, they stand in front of machines that grind those beans, passing bags on to the next set of hands waiting to seal them. Still another person counts, checks for leaks in the sealing, and marks each bag of freshly roasted coffee before carefully placing it into a container for later sale.
There are only four types of this mountain gold; medium ground, dark ground, medium whole bean and dark whole bean. The beans have been roasted at no cost by a volunteer organization in Ames following their delivery from another no cost volunteer who had picked them up in South Bend, Indiana.
There’s barely time for this group to reflect on the past year of their hard work, or the amount of American volunteering that goes into the sale of one coffee bag.
But like a chain of worker ants they scurry to help one another, nameless volunteers pick up the coffee beans and place them for sale in their parish communities. The mission is to have others enjoy a rich cup of coffee that the hard working Honduran farmers, who they may never meet, grow on the mountaintops of their home country far across an ocean.
Where did such an army of helping hands get this idea?
According to the Honduran ministry website at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, since 2007, STA has been in a parish-partner relationship with the people of Dulce Nombre de Maria Parish in the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras. STA parishioners, through the Honduras Ministry Committee, work to build relationships with the people of Dulce Nombre by being present to them and helping with identified needs; while being supportive, STA parishioners focus on learning about life in Honduras from the experience and perspective of their partner parishioners. The Honduras Ministry Committee also educates STA parishioners about the people of Honduras and supports its representative, John Donaghy, in prayer as he walks in their midst (see www.staparish.net/social-justice/honduras-ministry).
This is not an extension of charity, the parish of STA will tell you, but one of relating to another. The hope is to bring about an equal expression of dignity, respect and standing to their sister parish so that one day a visit from their sisters and brothers will be possible.
Selling coffee grown by farmers across the ocean is the beginning of that visit.
Coffee farmers in Honduras were used to selling and growing coffee beans. Selling for major producers, their stock was considered “the dregs” as they and their families were used to drinking it themselves. Many times the coffee was so poor it made them sick.
But one exporter in Honduras told them to “drink good coffee,” and once they began to, they were able to understand the type of coffee flavor and quality necessary for their dream of exporting it.
El Zapote Coffee Association was born, made up of 13 men and one woman farmer. Asking at first for microloans, they developed a plan to increase quality that centered on soil testing and training. They had to learn how to get their quality increased: understanding soil type, climate necessary, type of coffee bean, the use of solar dryers and a de-pulping machine, as well as the value of using experienced taste testers for grading.
The current president of El Zapote Coffee Association, a man named Jose, once confessed to attempting to escape Honduran poverty for the dream of working in the U.S. Lucky for him and others, he was caught by U.S. Border Patrol and returned.
Now he no longer has a desire or a need to flee to the U.S. Not only do he and the other farmers produce superior coffee for export, but they also employ their own seasonal workers who know how to separate good coffee beans from bad ones. There are still workers who do not have an option to own land so many people benefit from the increased work.
After long years of hard work, the members of El Zapote Coffee Association have seen their quality improve, and now the coffee has reached an “elite” status commanding a much higher price for export.
All three Ames area parishes currently have El Zapote Honduran coffee for sale. Every volunteer says the same thing when asked why they sell this coffee with so much commitment.
“It’s really good coffee,” they’ll tell you. ”We’re just helping these farmers get a market that will then help their families and communities.”
For information on using the Honduran coffee for fundraising purposes or to ask about purchasing, contact the Honduran ministry team at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames at 515-292-3810.
Updates on the El Zapote Coffee Association can be found on the organization’s Facebook page. Search for “El Zapote Coffee” to find it on the social networking site.
Emilia Henriquez (second from left) and a friend pose for a photo while harvesting coffee beans in Honduras. Henriquez is part of El Zapote Coffee Association, a group of farmers that partners with the Catholic parishes in Ames. (Contributed photo)